-- A Cyberspace Review Of The Arts

Volume 19.12
December 25, 2012

Judith Schaechter

Judith Schaechter: Andromeda
Judith Schaechter: Andromeda

at Eastern State Penitentiary

On a chilly day late in November, as the sun was already declining towards the horizon, I found myself within the heavy, gray stone walls of a prison, or rather the ruin of a prison: Eastern State Penitentiary, in Philadelphia. I had come there to see a remarkable installation of stained glass windows by Judith Schaechter, who has created significant new development in this rather recondite art.

Judith Schaechter:

Judith Schaechter:

Judith Schaechter:

Judith Schaechter:

Judith Schaechter:

Judith Schaechter:

Eastern State Penitentiary is not really a prison any more. It was built in the early part of the 19th century and was designed on very different principles than the prisons you have seen in the movies and the media (or directly). The general layout was based on Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon, but instead of every cell being constantly observed from a central point, only the hallways of the long, low buildings which contained the cells were centrally observable. There was not much concern for watching the prisoners because they were supposed to pass almost all their time in what we would call solitary confinement, as an aid to their repentance -- the prison was, after all, literally supposed to be a pentitentiary, a place of penitence and reformation.

The only light entering the cells came from narrow windows above, four by 40 inches. In the time before gas and electrical lighting, they must have been just about the only light the prisoners saw, except for an occasional watchman's lantern. The narrow windows, which prevented escape, also aptly echoed the constraint the prisoners must have felt in the narrow cells. The only things outside the cells a prisoner insiade could see were the sky, the sun, the moon, clouds, and perhaps a few passing birds. In a way, probably deliberately, the cells are curiously like the cells in a monastery. It was these narrow windows, and some others positioned vertically, into which Schaechter installed her works.

This arrangement was supposed to be more humane than previous methods of imprisonment and punishment. The actual prison buildings were surrounded by a high stone wall with faux-medieval towers which were more to impress and warn outsiders than to keep the insiders inside.

Over the years the theories of prison management changed; general solitary-confinement methods were abandoned, more buildings were added to the complex, new kinds of structures, like a greenhouse, a chapel, a synagogue, and an infirmary were built, and some more traditionally prisonish superstructures, like watchtowers, were added. Then, in 1971, the penitentiary, already obsolete and in poor repair, was vacated and began to fall apart in earnest. It quickly became an overgrown ruin, used mostly by colonies of feral cats. Subsequently, it came to be understood that the site was important at least historically; the trees were cleared away, some of the decay was stopped, and it is now what one might call an arrested or suspended ruin. It has been turned into a kind of archaeological site, not from the ancient world but from an earlier phase of our modern era. Enough is done to keep the interior from decaying further, but no attempt has been made to restore the buildings generally or pretty them up. One of the uses to which the penitentiary has been put has been the siting of artistic installations, especially those which reflect or reflect upon prison, after all an enormous fact of our national life.

Judith Schaechter was one of those who got an opportunity to construct one of the installations. But as a Philadelphian, Schaechter was already aware of the Penitentiary and had already thought that it would be an ideal place for the kind of work she does.

Traditionally, stained glass has been the province of religious institutions and occasionally has been employed as decor in the mansions of the wealthy or in large public institutional structures. [1]

Schaechter's work, however, goes in another direction. It is resolutely secular and personal. In the case of the installations at the Penitentiary generally persons taken out of mythology and legend are depicted: Andromeda, Prometheus, Mary Magdalene, Atlas, and Noah in one area and Icarus in another. These are more like examples than symbols. She also installed three windows depicting those who suffer when others are imprisoned: the Mother, the Sister, and the Daughter, and finally a large window with over 96 characters, 'The Battle of Carnival and Lent', depicting the struggle between impulse and restraint, or between Energy and Reason as William Blake might have put it.

Throughout most of the 20th century, modern, or at least Modernist, art was suppose to take place on stretched canvas or on other traditional media; or at least, this is what the big names did. That restriction began to break down in the 1960s and '70s, as popcult with its multifarious and irreverent ways invaded high art, and artists explored a great variety of materials and methods, some of them recently invented, others ancient. What was old became new again. The resurrection of stained glass was one of these new-old developments. Especially when installed so that it filters ever-changing external daylight, it has qualities of natural luminosity, reflectance and vitality which no other material can claim. It is, however, obviously difficult to work with, especially when one wants to provide close detail. In this area, one approach has been to paint the glass with translucent materials, but Schaechter generally goes another and better route: she uses something called 'flash glass' where only a thin layer of the glass is colored, and thus can be etched away to provide different tones and shadings. Also, she often assembles a work out of more than one layer of glass, making a variety of colors possible. Unlike painted glass, the coloring and shading of etched and layered glass is virtually eternal.

(Glass is not Schaechter's only medium, but it is mainly what she has been doing for the last 30 years.)

The complexity of execution does not distract this artist from constructing work with important formal, emotional, and spiritual characteristics. Indeed, her work has been sometimes criticized as 'morbid' or 'depressing' by those who would prefer art, or at least stained glass, to be pretty. Schaechter's work is more serious than that. Indeed, to some extent, Schaechter says in one of her commentaries on her work, the people who were in the prison were one of her imagined audiences. Hence, for instance, the repeated appearance of birds in the works that compose this installation; they would have been the only forms of life the earlier prisoners would have been able to see through the narrow windows, as well as being an essential element in some of the stories.

(The idea that the world of man is a prison, or that we are all in a kind of prison if any of us are, is not all that far-fetched, of course.)

The first window completed was that depicting Andromeda. Andromeda, in classical Greek mythology, was the daughter of Cassiopeia, who boasted that both she and her daughter were more beautiful than the Nereids, sea spirits who were often the companions of the sea god Poseidon. In retribution, Poseidon began to destroy Cassiopeia's country. An oracle told Cassiopeia that the country could only be saved if she sacrificed her daughter to the sea monster Cetus. Andromeda was duly chained to a seaside rock to await her fate. Fortunately, her fate turned out to be the legendary hero Perseus, who killed Cetus, rescued Andromeda, and married her. Later, Athena placed her in the heavens as the constellation Andromeda, which turned out by chance to include the great spiral galaxy of the same name invisible to the ancients, but which on closer view was seen to be another 'island universe' like our own Milky Way, leading us on to previously unimaginable spaces. Thus has Andromeda suggested innumerable astronomical and science-fiction adventures. (Although Andromeda is a passive character in the classical story, her name means 'Ruler of Men', implying that the story may have been rewritten in antiquity for political or religious reasons. In any case her name seems to have come true.)

Needless to say, an exciting story like this, including a young, beautiful naked woman chained to a rock, and possibly a noble hero and a monster, appealed greatly to artists then and subsequently, if only as an irresistible excuse to paint a shapely nude in various contorted postures. Not all the works were so superficial: Joseph Cornell compounded the mythological with the astronomical and the surreal in 'Hotel Andromeda'; and Rembrandt went beyond ogling to depict the suffering and terror of the victim. Schaechter's Andromeda belongs to this latter class. Sweat, tears, or possibly the seawater kicked up by an approaching monster run down her anguished face. We also see the starry sky of her future in the background; her chain rather reminds me of the chain in Joseph Cornell's depictions.

Prometheus is in a nearby cell. He brought or restored fire to mankind against the will of the gods, and was punished by being chained to a rock and having his liver torn out daily by a divine eagle. (Since Prometheus was an immortal titan, it grew back to be torn out again. You will be glad to know Prometheus was eventually rescued by Hercules.)

Promethus has been a favorite of those who admire defiance of authority, or at least those instances of it which are sufficiently far away and long ago. Schachter's Prometheus is not the noble fellow you will see in a lot of painting; he is another prisoner, another sufferer, and shows it, burned by the fire which he carries, and threatened by the attack of the immortal eagle. His is the anxiety-laden look of the point man: indeed, his name means 'Forethinker'.

Atlas is nearby. A titan like Prometheus, he was condemned by the gods to hold up the sky forever. Since the sky was envisioned by the ancients as a sphere, the image was often taken to be the Earth instead. He is the prisoner of the heavy burden, astral and terrestrial, that he carries forever.

Noah is here, not the zookeeper of religious children's stories but the anguished prisoner of the Ark, the Flood, and his own human failings.

Finally, there is Mary Magdalene. Her particularly striking window shows her as a prisoner stretched out prone and naked, on a mattress in a prison cell; behind her is a barred window (a window within a window). The shadows of the bars lie across her naked back like the stripes of a lash. The stories and traditions surrounding Magdalene are complex and contradictory. In many, she was said to have been an eventually reformed prostitute; and so, the 'Magdalen Society of Philadelphia', founded a few years before the Eastern State Penitentiary, as an institution to rescue and sustain 'fallen women', that is, prostitutes, from the streets and, of course, the prisons, punished for the guilt of others.

Another section of the installation, named 'Flight Risk', featured Icarus, who was given wings by his engineer father, and flew fatally close to the sun. This window was made by putting an engraving of a man on red flash glass and an engraving of a bird on blue glass together. They were then cut into strips to fit the format of the long, thin apertures. The name 'Flight Risk', refers not only to the risks of flying but to law-enforcement terminology with which the prisoners of yesteryear would have been all too familiar.

The imprisoned, in formal prisons, anyway, have usually been men; often forgotten are those whom they leave behind in personal prisons of their own when their male family members are locked up. Schaechter shows three of these: a grieving child, sister, and mother.

One critic remarked of 'Sister' that her diaphanous nightdress and underlying nudity implied an unsisterly relationship, but I felt that the implication was one of vulnerability, not erotic attraction. If there is an erotic element, it is not the free and joyous kind, but the kind of the goes on the block to pay a price.

Finally, there is the great 'Battle' window, based on the similarly-titled painting of Pieter Bruegel. The window contains almost a hundred characters and has to be studied closely and at length. Like Bruegel's picture, it depicts a struggle between excess and restraint, but it is not particularly keyed to the Bruegel version or to some other assemblage of characters like popular culture or the myths and legends of antiquity. Instead, each element needs to be taken on its own and dropped into your intuitive mind soup. Fortunately, you need not be standing in Eastern State Pentitiary last Novermber or a future art gallery or museum to do this; the image currently available on Picasa permits the required enlargement and close inspection.

I've omitted mentioning a set of accompanying smaller works, called 'Ornaments' by Schaechter, which appear on their own accompanying some of the larger windows, and in the background of others, sometimes squarely to the eye, sometimes in perspective, and run through much of her other work. These are intricate, abstract, usually highly symmetrical figures which deserve an essay of their own.

Although the Eastern State Pentitentiary installation has been dismantled and will presumably not return there, the windows are scheduled to be shown in May at Claire Oliver Gallery. Most will be in light boxes, but some effort will be made to present at least a few of the windows in a simulation of their dark, decayed prison enviroment. The date may change; it will be advisable to check with the gallery. Besides the gallery, a book is available and there is the aforementioned Picasa exhibition.

Take a look. This work is something you won't forget.

1. For example, Robert Sowers's work at the American Airlines Terminal at Kennedy Airport in New York City. One might also mention Gerhard Richter's randomly-colored window at the Cathedral of Cologne, which makes, it seems, yet one more effort to create meaning out of the rejection of meaning where meaning is expected, a well which may be running rather dry these days.

Judith Schaechter: Icarus composition
Judith Schaechter: Icarus composition


Judith Schaechter's Sites: (blog) (web site) (Picasa)

Pages about this Exhibition (gallery) (report/critique)

Interviews, Lectures, Demonstrations (Art Phag Interview) (Photoshop) (Smithsonian) (demo of some methods)

Music Videos: (Extra Virgin) (Better Days) (An animation!)

all images on this page, copyright © Judith Schaechter 2012

text by Gordon Fitch, 2012



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December 25, 2012